SGU Episode 146

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SGU Episode 146
8th May 2008

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SGU 145                      SGU 147

Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella

B: Bob Novella

R: Rebecca Watson

J: Jay Novella

E: Evan Bernstein

Quote of the Week

It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.

Sherlock Holmes

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Show Notes
Forum Discussion


You're listening to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe, your escape to reality.

S: Hello and welcome to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe. Today is Wednesday, May 7th 2008, and this is your host, Steven Novella, President of the New England Skeptical Society. Joining me this evening are Bob Novella,

B: Hey, everybody.

S: Rebecca Watson,

R: Hello, everyone.

S: Jay Novella,

J: Hey, guys.

S: And Evan Bernstein.

E: Happy Radio Day to all of our listeners in Russia.

S: Happy Radio Day.

R: Happy Radio Day.

J: Radio Day. What's that celebrate?

E: In 1895, gentleman by the name of Alexander Popov successfully demonstrated his invention, called the radio, gave a public demonstration on this day. This was just around the time that, you know-- Tesla and Marconi were also tinkering with their radio devices, but Alexander Popov is recognized in Russia as being the father of radio, at least over there.

J: And then Popov's grandson then used that radio technology to be a faith healer scam artist, is that it?

E: Uh, yeah, that would be...

R&S: Peter Popoff.

E: Peter Popoff. Thank you. Let's hope not.

R: That took a depressing turn.

E: One was a scientist, the other was a con artist.

SGU 3-Year Anniversary (1:25)[edit]

S: But of course, the real anniversary we're celebrating today is... the SGU 3-year anniversary.

(light cheering)

R: What do you get for three years? That's like a clock or something, right?

J: It's the cardboard anniversary.

R: Oh, right.

S: Cardboard, right. It was three years ago that a bunch of crazy kids got together and said, "Hey, let's put on a show!" We decided--


R: I could play the accordion! I can be a jerk!

E: I can sew the curtain and get the barn ready.

S: We do like to, every now and then, take a step back and look at how things have been going for the SGU. We're all still perpetually amazed at our wonderful listeners, and I do think we have among the most loyal and, dare I say, erudite listeners in all of podcasting.

E: Hell yeah.

R: Oh, definitely, and good-looking, and... they all smell wonderful.

E: Our numbers reflect that, though; they really do. They listen--

R: Smell, really?

S: They reflect their good hygiene?

E: Yes, that too. They listen and they stay with us. That's the important thing.

J: Steve, on my blog today[1], on Wednesday, I mentioned that Bob-- I recollect Bob as the person that came up with the name for the show, but how did-- do you remember more detail on how that came about?

S: Yeah, you were wrong. I already left a comment because I found the-- Perry's email; Perry came up with the name, which was my memory. We were emailing back and forth as to what we should call it. My suggestion for the name of the show was "The Skeptical Rogues", which we kept as just the name for the panel. Perry responded, "Skeptical Rogues? No, no, no. How about this" and he came up with like a long list of things. Number three on the list was "The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe".

B: Awesome. I forgot that. That's great. Good for Perry.

S: Yeah, that was Perry's idea. Then we had an actual face-to-face meeting where we were finalizing everything and Perry was strongly in favor of "The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe" and it definitely was the one that, over time, that was the clear choice. There really was nothing else in the running.

B: Right. If I remember it, people were coming up with suggestions; some would love a suggestion; some would hate it, and that was the one suggestion that nobody really said anything about, like hmmmm, nobody had any complaints and we didn't instantly fall in love with it, but it definitely grew on us. If memory serves, and I'm glad we picked it, it's great.

E: We threw out YouTube, but we didn't go with that one, so.


J: I was really surprised, though; the email that I posted on there that Steve wrote to all of us. I hadn't looked at those emails in, God-- you know--

E: Three years.

J: Three years. But Steve nailed it, he's like, "how about this" and-- the format of the show that we have today is almost identical to what Steve wrote out, I don't know if that was in lieu of many discussions or whatever but I was very surprised to see that.

S: No, that was my initial email; I was like, "Hey, let's do a podcast." But yeah, we've added segments since then; the Science or Fiction came in, you know, a few episodes after we started doing it, which remains our most popular segment.

E: Yep.

S: But yeah, the basic format of news and interviews, which was kind of obvious, was there-- one thing I noted, I said, "my sense is that we should keep the show light and entertaining but not be goofy and still cover some solid meat."

E: One out of two ain't bad.

R: Wait, not be goofy?

S: Not be goofy. Yeah, so it was pretty close to what we ended up getting to. But the basic concept was there. Entertaining and also informative, and I think that's been our guiding light throughout our podcast.

R: Witty but weighty, isn't that what--

S: "Witty but weighty" is a more witty way, if you will, of saying it.

J: Even though Rebecca wasn't there from the beginning, I think Rebecca has dramatically affected the quality of the show and everything like-- that's when we hit our-- our sweet spot.

B: Regardless, we keep her with us!

R: Aw, shucks. It's good to be a part of the team.

B: Oh, you meant positively impact.

S: Rebecca was that piece that we were missing from the very beginning but just didn't realize it.

R: Oh, like that story about the missing piece.

S: It's true, and then when we-- after we interviewed you[2], I tell ya, we all independently--

B: All of us.

S: --and simultaneously came up with the idea of "we have to ask her to be on the show" because it was just so obvious to all of us. We didn't even have to talk about it with each other.

B: No, no. That was great.

E: Five minutes after we were done, yep.

R: It was really cute because you guys said, "Oh, you know"-- after we did the interview, you said "oh, we should have you on again sometime," and I'm like, "yeah, this was a lot of fun, I would like to come on again sometime."

E: How's next week?

R: And then it was like, two days later, it's like, "so we'd like to have you on again next week."

S: Every week.

R: And maybe the one after that.

J: What'd you think of that interview, Rebecca; were you like, "these guys are geek lords", or...?

R: "Geek lords"?

E: No, we didn't reveal ourselves totally to you at that point.

S: Only a geek lord would use the term "geek lord", of course.

R: Yeah, that was maybe in fact the geekiest thing you've ever said. No, I thought-- I don't know-- I thought you guys were really funny and sweet and had a good show, and I hadn't heard the show before you asked me to come on. Something that I felt bad about. But I didn't listen to any podcast before I came on the show, and I did listen to one episode before I came on.

S: You did your homework?

R: I did. I always do. But yeah, I remember thinking, "hey, you know, this podcast idea isn't so bad." So yeah, you guys were my introduction to podcasts in general, and you know, I was very pleased that you guys wanted to have me on.

S: Well, now it wouldn't be the show without you.

J: Yeah.

R: Well, that was part of my evil plan.

S: Yes, your evil plot.

J: There's not that many women out there that could really deal with this room anyway, you know?

S: That's true.

R: Yeah, well, sometimes I wonder if I can.

S: You've survived; you've survived for a couple of years so that has some value right there.

R: It does. But yeah, happy third anniversary, fellas.

S: Thank you, Rebecca, and thanks to all of our listeners out there. Just to review some stats, we've exceeded 35,000 regular weekly listeners; we're on schedule, we're hoping to break 50,000 regular weekly listeners by the end of the year. That was the goal, the completely arbitrary goal that we've set for ourselves.

J: To celebrate our three years, Mike has created a little sound file for us of some of the highlights or just some of his favorite bits that we've done over the past three years. So--

S: Mike's favorite bits.

J: So here we go.

S: You have to be cautious before you send a really critical email to us because we just might use it in our Name that Logical Fallacy segment.

(all laughing)

S: We've been over this exhaustively; search for the thread on the forums, don't send us any emails; we're right, you're wrong.

S: That was the Monty Hall Problem.

B: OK.

S: Studies show that carbon nanotubes can-- (breaks down laughing)

(hysterical laughter)

J: Steve Novella!

B: There's no biological basis to claim that fasting, or enemas for that matter, can cleanse your body of toxins.

S: Not even coffee enemas?
B: It's gotta be decaf.

B: If they've won the linguistic battle, then f(bleep) them.

J: Bob Novella!

S: Does anybody know how long it takes for an electron to circle the nucleus of an atom?
?: Four foot one.

E: Mmm, I'm going to get me a handful of them salted monkey nuts.
J: Oh my God.

R: You know, I'd like to take this moment to speak on behalf of the non-birding population of our listeners and say: "we don't care."
E: That was the monkey vote right there.

J: Evan Bernstein!

R: So long as there's hot bonobo-on-bonobo action, I'm fine.

B: Hah! I love that.

R: Skeptic team activate!

R: We need a control-Z for this podcast.

R: You know, you guys are one unitard away from living the dream, aren't ya?

J: Rebecca Watson!

J: A lonely man.

J: The molecular man!

J: (bad Indian accent) You must pull on my penis for me to make sure it does not slip inside my body while I sleep. Thank you.

Mike Lacelle: Jay Novella!


J: So last week, Mike says, "Jay, you know that stupid thing you do with the quotes?" I'm like, "yeah". He goes, "can you say everybody's name like that and record it for me and send it to me?" And I'm like, "Mike, of course I'm going to ask you why, you know?" He's like, "no, no, no, it's no big deal. I just thought it'd be funny" and he's trying to totally play it off like I don't get it, you know.

S: Right.

J: I figured something like this was coming, but...

S: And then he did your name.

J: He did my name.

E: That was funny.

B: Good job, Mike!

S: Thanks, Mike.

J: Thanks, Mike, that was good.

E: Well done.

J: So, how about this: In everybody's opinion, how many more years do you think we're going to do this?

E: Ummmmm

R: Twenty? Thirty?

B: Point five.

R: At least until we transplant our brains into robots.

S: Right. I think the answer is--

B: 15 years, then.

S: --unless and until something better comes along. You know, always-- once we decided to start the New England Skeptical Society, we decided skepticism, promoting that and promoting science and promoting science education was our thing, right? This is the thing, the cause that we were going to dedicate our spare time to, and I don't think that's ever going to change. How we go about doing that, we'll decide as it comes. As long as the whole podcasting thing works out as well as it does and there's nothing better that we could be spending our time doing, I think we're going to continue to do it.

E: That's right, podcasting is the vehicle now that we're all driving in; if a better, sharper, larger, with better exposure vehicle comes along, we'll jump on that. Let's hope it happens.

S: Right.

J: Yeah, like "bodcasting". You know, we'll get into that.

R: "Bodcasting", really?

S: And we are constantly experimenting with new media; you know, we have two podcasts and three blogs, and we're working on producing other kinds of content. The great thing about Web 2.0 and the new media and the Internet is that it gives us the opportunity to experiment, with the only investment up front really being our investment of time and effort, you know? But there's really no limit to what we could do within that context, so--

R: I think the next step is you guys moving to Boston and doing a vodcast.

E: Oooh.

S: Think so?

R: Yeah, all together.

E: Well, I don't know about the "moving to Boston" part, but, the vodka...

R: It's kind of necessary to be in the same-- you know.

S: Yeah. Definitely video is in our future; I forsee that in some form or another.

J: Another thing I've been promising on the boards: As you listen to this episode, if you go to the SGU-- sorry, you can see our brand-new logo. It's not going to replace the existing one until we redo the website, but I'm hoping that Steve's going to put that in the picture for this week's show. We're very, very happy with it and it's going to shape the look and feel of the Skeptics' Guide for the next five or so years.

S: Yeah, so for our-- our present to ourselves for our third anniversary is a brand-new logo, so take a look at it on the website.

E: Nice.

R: I was hoping for jewellery, but OK.

S: You'll have to settle for that.

E: We'll make some jewellery using the logo for you.

News Items[edit]

Florida Academic Freedom Law Follow up (12:47)[edit]

S: Well, let's move on to some science news. The first-- some follow-up on last week we discussed the Florida Academic Freedom Law. This is one of proposed bills in several states that, under the guise of academic freedom, are looking to protect teachers and students who want to profess belief in creationism or intelligent design or introduce pseudoscientific criticisms of evolution. So it's just another way of undermining evolution teaching. The law had passed the Florida state senate and now we can report that it has failed the pass the Florida house. So the bill is dead and this was also the end of the legislative session, so it's dead for now, until a new session and a new bill is proposed. So that's a good thing, although this fight is not over; this is just getting started. As I said, this law-- similar laws are being proposed in many states. Also, apparently, the law didn't pass more because of bureaucratic infighting about the language and exactly how far the law should go; it wasn't that there was a backlash or a strong ideological opposition to the concept of this bill, it was more just the legislative bureaucratic stuff that got in the way. So, you know, even in Florida, this fight is not over. But I think, as we've been saying, this is the next phase of the creationist attack on the teaching of evolution. Unfortunately, it's very marketing-savvy; you know, hooking onto the whole "academic freedom" thing. This is kind of like the "equal time" strategy that creation science took in the 1970s and then going into the 1980s; it's kind of just a rebranding of that whole strategy. But they'll get another cycle out of this; this-- we're going to have to fight this for a while.

E: You're right, Steve, I mean, we will always be fighting this battle, I fear, for the rest of our lives. Creationism will always take some kind of form; ID, whatever it is, they will always continue to press it and we will have to constantly be vigilant in helping fight back against it. It's going to be a never-ending battle.

Florida Teacher Fired for Wizardry (15:00)[edit]

S: Yeah, I think so. Speaking of Florida, did you guys hear about the teacher who was fired for practicing wizardry?

B: I did not; tell me all about it.

R: Yes, Harry Potter got fired. Sad.

S: This is also in Florida, from Land-O'-Lakes; I didn't realize that was an actual place.

J: They make butter there[3].

S: This actually-- a substitute teacher, Jim Piculas, he did a 30-second magic trick in the classroom where he makes a toothpick appear to disappear and then reappear. So, you know, pretty standard sleight of hand, prestidigitation-type of trick, and he was called in to his supervisors who was told there was an issue with his teaching. Jim said to the supervisor, "well can you explain this to me?" and he said "you've been accused of wizardry." "Wizardry?", he asked. So, Piculas thinks that, for whatever reason, this all has to do with him casting a magic trick, doing a magic trick.

J: "Casting" a magic trick?

S: Performing a magic trick. Afterwards, the school district said that he was not following lesson plans and that he was allowing students to play on unapproved computers, which Piculas says that that was just after-the-fact, trumped-up stuff just to justify their actions.

R: You know... I'm skeptical.

S: Yeah, the whole thing doesn't make sense. This is the story as it's being reported, but there's some stupidity in there somewhere.

R: It certainly sounds-- there have been a couple of cases kind of like this, where someone accuses another body of discriminating against them because of their lack of beliefs or whatever, and I always examine these really carefully, and oftentimes it turns out that the person was just being a jerk. There are a ton of other reasons why they get fired or kicked out of school or, you know, things like that. So, I'm kind of thinking that this might be a case where the whole wizardry thing just got blown out of proportion by the media.

E: Or is a red herring entirely.

S: Yeah, I think you may be right. Clearly, the story doesn't make sense as it's being told, and I agree with you; I get the feeling that we're missing something, although the school district did not come up with a good explanation for their behavior, and those do sound like lame excuses: "He was allowing students to play on unapproved computers". Come on. You're going to let a substitute teacher go because of that? It doesn't make any sense. Maybe they didn't like him for whatever reason and this was just an excuse to get rid of him.

E: Sounds right.

R: Yeah, could be.

J: Well, definitely something that needs to be looked into further, because if it's true, he only performed a 30-second magic trick and he's generally a good substitute teacher and everything. Then you have to question--

R: Yeah, I mean, has anybody tried weighing him yet?


S: To see if he floats?

R: Yeah.

E: I know what you're saying, Jay, but--

J: On a serious note, though, let's go under the idea, real quick, that it's true the way that it's reflected here in the article. Then there's some serious problems with the people making decisions at that school.

R: I think we can agree on that.

S: Yes. It's not out of consideration that someone involved in that decision, because of their religious beliefs, thinks that performing magic tricks is, whatever, evil or demonic or wizardry. There are people who believe that.

R: Yeah, and I have to say, I know teachers who have been-- who've gotten a lot of crap from parents just for doing what you think might just be kind of cool lessons and ways to make learning more interesting, you know, parents can suddenly out of nowhere yell about, like I have a friend who does an Ouija board demonstration in his science class for seventh graders to get them thinking critically about "why does this work", then he teaches them about the ideomotor effect that's happening, things like that. And there are actually parents every year who won't allow their kids to participate in that lesson because they believe that the Ouija board is witchcraft. Like, they literally, they pull their child out of the class. So, I mean, it is within the realm of possibility.

S: Yeah. It'd be nice to get some follow-up; if anybody locally or otherwise sees any follow-up news on this, let us know. Usually after the splashy headline, you know, "teacher fired for wizardry", you don't get the details in the later follow-up stories; they're buried somewhere or nobody bothers following up on it.

E: Ms. Porter wrote, "Now Piculas believes the incident may have bewitched his ability to get a job anywhere else." (mockingly) Ha, ha, ha, well done.


S: That article basically writes itself.

Special Report (19:59)[edit]

  • Bob's Ghost Tour

S: Bob, tell us about your inebriated ghost tour.

B: This past weekend, I went to my first real horror convention.

J: OK.

R: Oooh.

E: Did you say "horrible convention"?

R: A horror convention?

J: Bob, no giggling; nobody here is shocked in any way, of course.

B: OK. This isn't like a geeky sci-fi convention where people go to worship Captain Kirk or the Daleks and buy collectibles. I've done my share of those conventions and this convention was different, though. There's actually a handful of annual conventions like this and they're designed for professional geeks. As an aside, I actually got recognized at the seminar; I couldn't believe it.

R: Really?

B: First time in my life, a couple--

R: Bob's giving out autographs?

B: Not yet, not yet, I'm waiting for that, but a couple came up to me after the seminar and asked me if I was Jay.


B: I mean you could kind of say that means I was recognized. They-- and I said, "no, but I've got a brother named Jay" and then they realized who I was and said "oh yeah, we're big fans of the podcast". It turns out that Jason and his lovely wife were fans and they recognized my voice when I asked a question of the guy giving the seminar.

R: Aww. That's awesome.

J: Bob, did you say, "how much is it going to cost me to buy that prop; is it going to be billions and billions of dollars" and they're like--

B: Ha, no.


R: Yeah, was it like a nanotech suit of armor or something?

B: But, I have noticed-- on the dark side, I have noticed a disturbing trend in the haunting-- in the haunt convention industry, including the one haunt industry podcast in existence that I listen to. Many conventions offer tours of local venues that are haunted, not with fake ghosts and monsters, but supposedly with real ghosts. The convention I was at also actually had a seminar devoted to the paranormal. Now I could see why this is happening; the connection's kind of obvious, but it's just so galling to me to have this, like, infiltrate one of my main hobbies. I was too busy to go to the seminar and I was just so disgusted I refused. But later at night I decided to try the ghost tour that was offered in the restaurant that was attached to the convention hotel. So unfortunately, there were a few things about the tour that were not conducive to an ideal scenario: it was two in the morning, after a very long day; I didn't have a recorder with me, which would have really come in handy--

J: Bob, you were drunk, though, right? Is that true?

B: I'm-- I did not take notes, but I had recently consumed four rum & Cokes.

R: Ohhh no.

B: So, the people who run the tour are members of SPRI-- I pronounce it "spry", S.P.R.I.-- or the Society for Paranormal Research and Investigation.

S: How many permutations of those words have we seen in the acronyms of one lame-ass group after another?

E: Too many.

B: Right.

S: At least they're not the Unicorn Rangers.

B: God.

R: That would be awesome.

E: Or the Cosmic Society.

R: I would have come along-- I would have flown out there just to go along--

J: (lisping) I got my badges, I got my candles. There's ghosts! Ghosts!

E: I took this picture, you see.

B: These guy claim-- they claim to try to be scientific and--

S: Yeah, don't they all.

B: Yeah, I know. But a couple things they did were-- weren't as egregious as you might expect, but of course, other things were. The first room we entered was a dining room that had an infrared camera in it on a tripod. The host for that room, one of the SPRI members, mentioned that orbs-- ghost orbs are seen a lot, but the vast majority are reflections off dust particles. He even smacked the top of a nearby flat surface and you could see the dust particles and the orbs flying around in the camera, which was interesting. I asked them how they distinguished a dust globule from a paranormal one; he said that a real ghost globule, if it's real, it couldn't be caused by light reflection. So I was kind of scratching my head about that.

E: Uh, that's not an answer.

B: I said that if you see a globule-- if you actually see one, then by definition, there must be light in the room which could then reflect off of the dust. And he said that what he meant was that real ghost globules sustain their illumination beyond the point it could be a reflection. So I'm not sure how that could be--

R: What?

S: What does that mean operationally? You know, what does that mean in terms of being distinguishing?

E: Nothing!

S: That's just a hand-waving explanation. But in terms-- what process do you go through to make that determination?

B: Right, unless you turn off all sources of illumination then I'm not sure how you could determine that. I mean, you could actually calculate a sweet spot of reflection for dust particles, but from what I could tell they weren't doing any of that, and even then you could still get minor reflections, you know, the little ghost globules in the background that wouldn't be removed. The second room had four cameras mounted on the walls, all kind of maybe-- kind of like pointing towards each other, and there was a computer monitor on a desk that showed the output from each of the cameras, so it was like a four-split-- four-way split. Now this room had the loopiest SPRI member but my memory just is too hazy to comment with much confidence, unfortunately. But I remember, she was really-- she would do water witching-- somehow, she would walk through-- and she actually showed a demonstration of-- she had the two wires in her hands and she asked a question, and oh look, they moved towards each other; wow, how does that happen.

E: Yeah, water witching is another word for dowsing by the way.

B: Right. I heard-- I remember her saying that she's a sensitive and-- she just kept talking about stuff and I just-- really, really out there, but I wish I could remember more details about her, because she was really funny.

S: Right. It sounds like she was the fantasy-prone personality--

B: Oh my God, yes.

S: --type person in the group, and every group has one of those, every ghost-hunting group, because they're the ones that generate all the actual positive sightings and feelings and stuff.

B: Right. So we have one more room here, this was the computer room; it had a couple of desks and monitors and computers, and one of the SPRI members-- I think his name was Tom-- he showed us an EMF meter-- electromagnetic frequency meter. He showed that it worked, but he acknowledged-- he said that it picks up all the electronic equipment in the area. This is why the device is so silly on those ghost hunter shows-- there's so much equipment around: cameras, cell phones, even the building wire can cause this thing to go off. And another thing is that a lot of these people don't even know how to use the device, 'cause you really can't just take a measurement and say, "oh, there's something going on here". For a lot of these devices, you actually have to use it-- you know, you put it into an area, and you take a measurement, but then you've gotta turn it to take a measurement on another axis, so you gotta go through the three axes to take a proper measurement, and I've never seen any of the ghost hunters do anything like that.

S: It's actually a lot worse than that.

B: Yeah.

S: There are different kind of EM meters; there's unidirectional, that only will pick it up in one direction, which is actually the only one kind of device that makes sense, right, 'cause you want to know what direction things are coming in. But for some reason they make omnidirectional ones, which means you could-- it'll pick up a field coming from any direction. Those devices started to come into existence around the time there was a hysteria about high-tension wires, you know, the high-voltage wires and causing leukemia and things like that. Right. But they don't-- industrially and scientifically they don't really serve any purpose. So you have to know which kind of meter you have. The other thing is, all those meters have a very narrow range of EM that they detect; you know, you have to know what you're trying to detect and you have to use an EM meter that's calibrated or designed to measure in the relevant frequency range. And you know, so they have no idea; they're just using whatever frequency range the ones they bought off the shelf happen to be recording. And I guess ghosts always emit EM radiation in the frequency of whatever device you happen to be holding at the time. And the range on those things is really short; I mean, like you know, an inch, you know, really short, so. They're waving it around the room; they have no idea what they're recording; it's really absurd.

B: In the course of their presentation in this last room, one of the members mentioned that "physics supports the paranormal" and of course, I couldn't let that one go. I said that-- politely, I said that I disagreed and mainstream physicists do not believe that physics supports the paranormal, and then Tom-- I think his name was Tom-- he piped in something about physics showing how bumblebees can't fly--

E: Oh, no.

R: Oh God.

B: I couldn't believe--

S: Well, you go me on that one, Phil!

R: Good job on that one, Huckabee.

B: I couldn't-- I couldn't believe-- I couldn't believe he used the bumblebee card. The shock on my face must have been pretty obvious.

E: Maybe by that time, Bob, you should have expected something like that, after that string of nonsense that you had to be put through.

B: I did my best to explain how when a bumble-- to describe the situation how when bumblebee flight was first calculated, they used equations for static wing flight, like for an airplane, and this is how-- this is not how bees fly. I then said that science later showed that wing rotations cause vortices of low pressure that account nicely for the lift that bees demonstrate. And if I'm remembering correctly, I just got blank looks all around and-- yeah, that was it.

R: I love you, Bob; that's fantastic.

J: Oh yeah?!

S, B & R: (Imitating Jay) Oh yeah?!

S: That's easy for you to say!

J: But, they must have been hating Bob.

S: Listen-- Seriously, well done, Bob-- seriously, they have the same like three points that they make over and over again, you know what I mean? It's not like they have anything interesting or new to say; it's like arguing with a creationist. They have the same three lame points that have been debunked for decades; they rarely come out with anything new or interesting. So you're going to hear that recycled bumblebee example over and over again. Then the next thing of course is, (mocking) "well, we only use 10% of our brains". You know, that-- you know that's coming next, right?

B: Yeah, right. If I was there a little longer, somebody would've said that.

S: "The other 90% is where all the paranormal stuff's happening."

E: (chuckling) Must be; that's about the ratio.

S: So, Bob, you're basically telling me that at two o'clock in the morning, sleep-deprived and inebriated, you completely blew these guys away with your scientific analysis of their nonsense.

B: Uhhh... If I'm remembering correctly.

S: (chuckles)

R: I appreciate the report from horror con. Way to stand up for the skeptics.

S: Well, thanks for that report, Bob. It does seem these paranormal losers are infiltrating everything.

B: That's the most depressing thing about it, like, come on, you know, it's like... finding the paranormal in your most beloved hobby that shouldn't-- never had it before; all of a sudden, there it is. I just wanted to shoot it down.

S: Imagine how you would feel if it were infiltrating your profession, let alone your hobby.

B: Yeah. Yup.

Questions and Emails[edit]

T. rex Proteins (30:40)[edit]

S: Anyway, let's move on to some questions and emails. The first email comes from Steven Salzberg, who writes,

I just heard the latest 5x5 podcast[4] on my drive in, where you discuss the new paper in Science reporting that T. rex is closer to birds than to reptiles. "Very very cool," said Steve to close the podcast. Unfortunately, the paper is very, very wrong. The first thing to notice is that the authors of this new paper don't present *any* new data on T. rex. The only new proteins they looked at were from alligator and ostriches. The T. rex protein - collagen - was reported in a paper by the same authors one year ago. (As an aside, these guys are doing a remarkable job of getting two Science papers from one small data sample.) That paper a year ago reported 7 small protein fragments from collagen in T. rex. The problem is, their interpretation of the data was fundamentally flawed. Multiple experts have re-examined the data - skeptically! - and found that the mass spectrometry data could just as easily be interpreted as bacterial protein fragments. This is far more likely, too - it seems virtually impossible that proteins would survive for >65 million years, and in this case skepticism is warranted. A colleague of mine has a paper under review that demonstrates why all 7 fragments are bogus. I can't discuss his paper yet - though he says he's willing to be interviewed by you guys after it is published - but there is already good evidence that the T. rex story - appealing though it is - is falling apart.

S: He then goes into a little bit more detail, but that's the essence of the paper. So, thanks Steven, for giving us that inside look into this data. So we discussed actually on-- I think two weeks ago, the SGU 5x5-- we discussed a science news report showing that T. rex collagen protein isolated from a fossil of a T. rex bone, when compared to birds and to reptiles, showed that the T. rex protein was closer to bird protein and this reinforced the lines of evidence from fossil records that birds evolved from dinosaurs, as opposed to evolving from other reptiles or something else. Unless you are-- have expertise in this area or this is the area of your research, there really wasn't any reason not to accept the validity of this paper, but what Steven is saying is that this data is not surviving the peer review-- the post-publication peer review process. Now that the community of scientists are picking it apart, the conclusions that were drawn in this paper are falling apart, and it sounds like the main problem is that the proteins that they isolated were not confirmed to be actual T. rex proteins; they may have been contaminants. Of course, if they're contaminants, all bets are off.

J: So, basically, the whole study is false, then, right? Is that--

S: Well, that's what he's saying. So, this will have to go through the process; they'll argue it back and forth and then we'll see where the dust settles. But this is the process of science, and I've heard this story reported in other podcasts, and this is sort of making the rounds. It is a very interesting story, and seems perfectly legitimate, but it's interesting to see that actually on the inside that there's a lot of disagreement, and that-- we actually just have to wait and see where this all falls out but it sounds like there's some very serious objections from experts on this data.

Water Experiment (34:02)[edit]

S: So the next email comes from Graham Lappin, who writes:

The UK-sceptics forum has been discussing the Water experiment taking place today.

S: This is about a week ago.

Looks to me like a well designed experiment so that it is non-falsifiable! It might make an interesting news item on the podcast.

S: Which I agree with. So, he's referring to-- again, he provides a link, which of course, we'll give-- this is on a website called The Intention Experiment, and on April 26th they performed a water experiment. This is an experiment designed to see if intention, you know, thinking, wishing that something happens could affect the structure of water in a beaker in a laboratory. Now, I've a couple of major with this experiment. One is that they don't have a pre-determined outcome that they're looking for, right? They're just looking for anything weird to happen. That's what we call "open-ended criteria". And when that's your criteria, "we're just looking for something weird to happen", you're probably going to find it.

E: Is that the Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy?

S: Yeah, exactly; that's exactly right, Evan. You shoot at the barn wall and then you go up and draw a bulls-eye around wherever the hole is. So that's exactly what they're doing. My other big problem with it is, guess who the scientist is who is doing the water experiments?

B: Roy?

S: Rustum Roy, who we have discussed before[link needed]. This guy is now, I guess, making a career out of being a water pseudo-scientist. This is the guy I debated on homeopathy; this is guy who thinks that the materialistic paradigm is dead because of that John of God scam artist who's a fake faith healer; he was totally bamboozled by this guy and said, "that means that materialism is dead." Wrong! This guy thinks that homeopathy is plausible because of the str-- water structure, structure in water, which is a complete load of malarkey; there's really no evidence that there's any persistent structures like what he's referring to in water. Water's a liquid; it flows. So, you know, he's drank the paranormal Kool-aid, you know, he's-- maybe he started out his career as a legitimate scientist, Rustum Roy, but now he's off into woo land, and his sole purpose now is to support superficial plausibility to whatever the woo of the day is, that he's looking at.

B: He was also into research-- the burning salt water hubbub. Remember that?

S: Yes, he commented very favorably on the burning salt water. So this was John Kanzius, who thought that he was able to burn salt water as fuel when it turns out all he was doing was splitting apart the hydrogen and oxygen using radio waves and then burning the hydrogen and oxygen back together, which would necessarily produce a net loss in energy.

B: Right.

S: Rustum Roy thought this was the greatest thing since sliced bread.

B: Yeah, his quote is, "The most remarkable in water science in a hundred years."

S: Yeah, the guy's lost.

E: Maybe Dr. Roy's next experiment will be that of dowsing. He'll go ahead and endorse that.

S: Right. So, we'll see what-- they said they're going to publish the results of this study; there's nothing published on the website right now, so we'll see what it shows. But it's basically worthless, the way they designed the study. It's designed to generate false positive results.

Misconceptions about Evolution (37:27)[edit]

S: The next email comes from Rico Fusco, from the panhandle of Florida, although he says he's currently deployed in Iraq. And he says,

I'm a former creationist evangelical Christian. I've re-entered the world of reason about a year ago. I hear you mention misconceptions about evolution on your show and other podcasts. I work in the IT field, so when I hear that "humans evolved from monkeys" is misinformation I think to myself "but I thought that was true". Can you guys give your top five misconceptions about evolution and what their true answer is? Thanks. I love the show; I'm in Baghdad right now and still find a chance to download your podcast every week. Keep up the good work, guys.

B: Wow.

S: Well, thanks, Rico; we always love to hear from our men and women in the armed forces, especially those that are forward deployed. So thanks for writing in. So, yeah, absolutely, we're going to go over some of the top misconceptions about evolution which do not necessarily have to be misconceptions that creationists have or propagate, just misconceptions about evolution. Does anybody want to start?

R: Um, OK. How about one misconception that I hear a lot is that "the problem with evolution is that it can't explain the origins of life." But--

B: Oh, good one.

R: Evolution has nothing to do with the origins of life. The origin of life-- you can look to the Big Bang Theory, you might believe that God just popped everything into existence, you might believe that the Flying Spaghetti Monster touched all with His Noodly Appendage. What evolution's concerned with is living things that are here now and how they change over time. So, it's nothing to do with the origin of life at all.

S: Right. That's true, the life origins is a distinct discipline from evolution 'cause you could believe in one without the other. Although, there is potentially a little bit of overlap, not with the evolution of living things, but there may have been some evolutionary processes happening at the chemical level that led those primitive self-replicating molecules to become the first things that we would call life. Of course, there's a very fuzzy line there between non-life and life; there's no really clear demarcation. But you know, there's probably some natural selection and variation going on with those first RNA precursors that were evolving into the basic-- basic structures of life. So, I think there-- evolutionary principle still can apply to the origin of life, even though it is a separate question the subsequent evolution of life. Bob, you got something?

B: Yeah, one I like is "evolution is random; how could such complexity arise from randomness?" The canonical straw man argument for this is "it's like a tornado ripping through a junkyard and creating a 747."

S: Right.

R: Or monkeys typing Shakespeare.

B: Right. So, this totally ignores natural selection, which is not random, but slowly builds on the small number of beneficial changes and discards or ignores the majority that don't help. So there is a random part to it, which is the genetic change, the mutations, the combination of genes, but then there is this building process, natural selection-- and it's "selection"; just look at the word, "selection"; that selecting isn't random. Actually it's a form of design; not top-down, but bottom-up design that's part of this process. To use Brian Dunning's really good example from Skeptoid, he said that it's more like a million junkyards with welders in each one going through and welding random pieces together, or taking pieces apart, or maybe even doing nothing. And then, so of those million junkyards, a very small percentage will actually create a beneficial change, where something actually works, maybe a little bit better than it used to before and then having those reproduce and discarding the ones that didn't have a change, and then eventually because you're dealing with such huge numbers, over time, you're slowly going to build mechanisms that do better, get better, improve, and eventually, after enough generations, maybe you will build a 747.[5]

S: Right. I'm going to get mine from the Evolution News and Views propaganda blog of the Discovery Institute. It's just a never-ending--

B: You love that place, don't you?

S: I do; it's just like logical fallacy central.

R: Glutton for punishment.

S: I actually utterly despise all of these guys. They are doing their best to undermine logic and science and reason just to promote their own ideology. But it's like picking at a scab or driving really slow past a terrible car accident; I keep going back there and seeing what nonsense they have. So here's one from Bruce Chapman from earlier this week, and he-- it's a very short one, but he writes, "Much the way Marxist determinism was marshalled in the past to explain practically everything, and evolutionary advantage is now sought, endless grant money seems to be available and journalists are eager to report the research speculations as science. I'm collecting a file on such stories. So here I am trying to figure out how a study might be concocted to explain this moving account of a sports team that showed great conscience and panache. Surely someone can get a government to find a Darwinian answer to replace the common sense one." And he links to a story, which is actually a very interesting story, about a girl's softball team, where one of the girls on the team-- this is, I guess, a college team-- she was a senior, she hit a home run, like her first career home run over the fence. While running the bases, she pulled a tendon and couldn't run any more. So the other team, the team that she was playing against, picked her up and ran her around the bases, allowing her to touch every base so that her run would count. And they said, "she hit the ball over the fence, she deserved a home run."

R: What the frig does this have to do with evolution?

S: Exactly. Exactly. But--

B: Wow.

R: "Exactly"? (laughs)

S: It has nothing-- well, listen, but--

R: I can't wait for this to turn into one of the common myths about evolution.

E: And baseball.

B: Altruism. Altruism.

S: There's a couple of myths in here. There's a couple of myths in here. Two-- there's two core myths in Bruce Chapman's little innuendo blog entry. The first--

R: Myth one: evolutions don't play softball.

S: No. The first is that evolutionists claim that there is an evolutionary advantage or purpose to every single thing that we see in nature.

B: Right.

R: Ah.

S: And that is a very common misconception; in fact, that is called the Adaptationalist Fallacy, meaning that everything has a specific evolutionary purpose to it. Gould-- Stephen Jay Gould I think was probably most vociferous in trying to oppose this fallacy. In fact, a lot of things exist in nature as an epiphenomenon; they exist just because, just as a consequence either of randomness or genetic drift or they exist because they're riding along with some other feature that was adaptive and was selected for. So you don't have to find a specific purpose for everything, you know? The one example I like to give is that, you know, we human beings did evolve to play the piano. Playing the piano is just one of those things that was an unintended consequence of how our brains evolved, right? You don't need to find a specific evolutionary, adaptationalist purpose to explain why-- our ability to play the piano. That's kind of an obvious example, but you can use that, you can extrapolate that to everything. So-- and even people who believe in evolution, this is a very common misconception they have. They think, "oh this feature or this function or whatever this animal is doing must have a specific purpose." No, it doesn't; it could just be for random reasons. But Chapman is projecting this fallacy onto evolutionists; that's wrong. That is what I would call an unstated major premise in his statement here. The other unstated major premise, once you read this moving account, is that Darwinism, or evolution, says that we should all be ruthlessly competitive in every single way.

B: Right. Hello, bats?

S: "Nature, red in tooth and claw"[6], right? And that is absolutely not true; there's a very large literature on the fact that altruism has Darwinian advantage, you know? These girls felt moved by the whole notion of fairness, of justice; you know, "she hit the ball over the fence, she deserved to have a home run." That is a sense that we all share to some degree; we evolved it for a reason. And when you actually do computer simulations, you find that this kind of behavior actually has a lot of advantages, for the individual and for the group. So, he has-- there are two unstated major premises that are both ignorant misconceptions, and they're inexcusable in somebody who presumes to criticize a major scientific theory. And like all of these, again, baboons-- I love calling them on this blog in the Discovery Institute-- their criticisms of evolution are almost entirely based on their personal ignorance of what it actually says.

B: There's no excuse for him not knowing that.

S: So I-- you see? I extracted two misconceptions out of that.

R: So that was a g-- OK, that was good, that was good.

S: Jay or Evan, you guys have something?

E: This misconception plays off the original question that Rico posed in regards to the common myth that human evolved from monkeys, when people say, "Well, if that's the case, then why are there still monkeys around?" I'm sure we've all-- we've heard that. And well, we know that evolution does not teach that humans descended from monkeys; instead, it states that both have a common ancestor. And when I went to do a little more research on this to better answer this question, I did come across something that John Rennie, editor-in-chief of Scientific American, wrote and I felt it was a very good example to give for this question as to why are there still monkeys. John Rennie states that "it's tantamount to asking if children descended from adults, then why are there still adults? A new species evolves by splintering off from established ones when populations of organisms become isolated from the main branch of their family and acquire sufficient differences to remain forever distinct. The parent species may survive indefinitely thereafter or it may become extinct."[7] That's a very nice way, I think, of summing that up.

S: That's right. Although, I do think that people get into problems a little bit with the terminology. Sometimes they say "descended from apes", sometimes they say "descended from monkeys", sometimes I've even heard "descended from primates". And you know, our common ancestor with apes, our common ancestor with monkeys was a primate; our common ancestor with monkeys was a monkey, probably, and our common ancestor with other apes probably also was an ape, you know?

R: Like us.

S: But what we didn't evolve from: extant apes; we didn't evolve from gorillas or chimpanzees. Modern apes: gorillas, chimpanzees and humans, share a common ancestor about, I think we go on back 8 million years now, and that creature, you know, probably looked more like a chimpanzee than anything else that's alive right now.

R: Yeah, basically we're all a bunch of cousins; grandpa's dead, there you go. So we all came from a common ancestor, grandpa; we all kind of look the same, you know? We might have some similar traits, things we got from grandpa, but we're a little different from each other. Doesn't mean that we are descended from each other.

S: Right. It's like saying that I descended from Jay, right; that would be the equivalent.

R: That would be creepy.

E: On many levels.

J: You'd be lucky, though, I mean...


R: Ugh.

S: Jay, you have your favorite evolution logical fallacy or misconception?

J: Well, let me put it to you this way: I don't have a favorite, like, "yeah, I just love to talk about this one, 'cause it makes me feel good." I have to say, I have one that annoys me a lot--

B: That'll do.

J: --that I think of more than any of the others recently is, wasn't it Dr. Egnor--

E: I know him.

J: --who believed, or asked the question about brain cancer and if that's mutant cells and why doesn't that improve on the brain. Was that him?

S: Yes.

J: That, to me, like in a nutshell, illustrates how ignorant a lot of, most or if not 100% of the people who believe in intelligent design, who are against evolution-- like, he flexes his inability to grasp these facts and the details about evolution when he says something like that. So I think that's a good example of something where there's just so many things wrong with it that he doesn't even have like a building block of, "well, I understand these concepts and I just happen to not agree with them or I don't agree with the science." He's just flat-out ignorant.

S: Right. No, it's true; I'm always shocked at the ignorance of people who are making a career out of criticizing evolution. You know, "know thine enemy"; at least try to understand the theory you're going to try to knock down. Because otherwise you end up looking like a fool, which they all do. I do have to add-- I didn't know which ones you guys were going to come up with, so since nobody came up with this one I do want to talk about this one, 'cause this is, to me, this is like the most galling misconceptions that the creationists throw out there. And again we can take this from this week evolution news and views. Geoffrey Simmons, who wrote a book called Billions of Missing Links, and again this is based upon the misconception that, promoted by creationists, that there are no transitional fossils.

E: Wow!

R: Every time we find one there are two new gaps!

E: Steve, how is that possible?

S: Yeah. But this is-- but they're not even saying-- this is not the "gap" argument, they're just saying there are no transitional fossils. They're lying--

R: That's just pure ignorance, or--

S: --it's just flat-out factual galling lie. This guy Geoffrey Simmons was in a debate with PZ Myers, and he threw out, "there's no transitional fossils" and PZ-- and he specifically brought out, like between whales and terrestrial mammals.

B: Oh my God.

E: (indistinct) like 50 years old, that's incredible!

S: Right, Bob, he was like "oh my God", that was my reaction, it's like, come on.

R: Yeah, and PZ came right back at him with the exact evidence that he was looking for, and still, it's like--

S: Off the top of his head, because that's how bad it is. Yeah, sure, in the 1970s or earlier, you could use whales as an example of a major group that where there was a big gap, right? There was no major transitional fossils from land-based mammals and whales. But then, in the 1980s, we've dug a ton of them out of the ground. We have, you know, Ambulocetus is probably the most common example. But now there's a sequence of fossils of whales with the blow hole migrating to the top of their head, and the legs becoming smaller and smaller and then finally disappearing. It's now an excellent example of numerous transitions, exactly the transitions we would have predicted morphologically, given the presumed land-based ancestors and modern whales. It's a beautiful example and this guy Geoffrey Simmons wrote an entire book and yet his knowledge is decades out of date, and-- which just leads to the end result of just bold-faced lies. But they don't care; they clearly just don't care even minimally about what the actual truth is or the facts are and that one-- that's what galls me the most, it's like, there's so many beautiful transitional fossils out there and there's more and more and more every year.

E: Since we've been doing this podcast for three years, Steve, I can think of like, four or five times where we've reported on the new transitional fossils that they've discovered.

S: Yeah! Just recently snakes and bats--

B: And bats even were-- bats were the great one for years 'cause there was such a lack of good bat fossils, but no longer. No longer.

S: Well, there's still a big gap there with bats, but we did--

B: Not as bad. Not as bad.

S: --we did chip away at it with a recent fossil, and just today, I read about a new bird-dinosaur transitionary fossil, another Chinese feathered dinosaur, a version-- an older--

B: Really?

S: --more primitive version of Confuciusornis. Again, that was one where we had birds and reptiles and there was no-- at the time of Darwin, there was nothing in between and then--

B: Archaeopteryx was first.

S: Archaeopteryx was discovered; now there's I think something like ten really nice Archaeopteryx specimens. But that was the only one sort of in between and it's a beautiful half-reptile half-bird; I mean, it doesn't get better than that, you know, it really is literally half-bird and half-reptile. And-- but that wasn't enough.

E: It's never enough; that's the point.

S: And now, now we've found a slew of species of feathered dinosaurs, really fleshing out the sequence from theropod dinosaurs to birds. Just tons of gorgeous transitional fossils. But it'll never be enough. It'll never be enough.

R: Well, there are at least like, four or five other common myths, but--

E: Oh, there's plenty more.

R: I don't think we can-- maybe we-- we should probably make this a two-parter. We'll probably have to come back to this.

S: Yeah, we'll come back to it. That was good enough for one episode, but that's-- yeah, you're right, there's just-- there is an essay floating around the Internet called like "The Ten Arguments against Evolution"; these are the ten real biggies that the creationists use to "nail evolution". So I wrote a blog basically tearing down each and every one[8]. And these things are all over there, too. Most of us who write about this have, at one point in time, taken the time to write rebuttals to the common misconceptions that creationists have. There's a ton of them. So we could definitely spend a few episodes going over a few every episode. So maybe we will do that.

J: You know, the thing is, there's so many, and they'll just keep coming up with more that you'll never be able to clean out the chimney on this one.

E: No, but it's good to point out. Steve, like you said, it's kind of like when you're going back continually to this Discovery Institute's websites to just keep up to date on what they're churning out so we can continue to help fight against it.

S: But they do tend to come back to the same points over and over again. They're not going to let go of a point just because it's wrong.

E: That's true.

Homeopathic Zicam (55:57)[edit]

S: Well, let's go on to the next email. This one comes from... this one comes from Jeff Homes(?) from San Antonio, Texas, and he writes:

Howdy, gang, I just wanted to point out to you an article in Consumer Reports that gets it right. On page 45 of their June issue they issue a warning about Zicam allergy relief. There are two versions: intense relief, which does contain an FDA-approved decongestant, and seasonal relief, which is "homeopathic". These two products often sit side-by-side in your local drug store. Consumer Reports lays out a brief case against homeopathy and ends with the suggestion that if a product is labeled "homeopathic", don't buy it. I just thought you might like to warn your listeners about Zicam and praise Consumer Reports on the show. I enjoy your show every week and I'm hoping The Skeptologists becomes a successful TV show. Keep up the good work.

S: Well, thank you, Jeff. And yeah, there's a few points that are worth pointing out here. One of the missions of the skeptical movement is to be consumer advocates; to do consumer protection, especially from pseudo-scientific frauds or cons, and I think homeopathy ranks as a pseudo-scientific con that's being perpetuated on the public. And it's good to hear that Consumer Reports, which is a consumer-protection magazine, that's what it does, that does have a very high standard for itself; it does not accept, for example, any advertising, because that would compromise its editorial purity, so they try to do it right. So it's good to hear that they are calling it the way it is; they're not pandering or drinking the paranormal Kool-aid, saying "homeopathy, it's a con against consumers; it's a bad product; don't buy it." And they also point out that a lot of products that are labeled as homeopathic-- although that's enough for me not to buy it-- but sometimes, a product may be labeled as homeopathic but they actually might have a--

E: An active ingredient.

S: --an active ingredient at a dose, at a real dose; a dose that will be functionally active.

E: I thought that Zicam-- I thought that Zicam was one, in fact, one of those products that actually contained a measurable amount of zinc.

S: Yeah, well, it does, but I think there's two different products, and one is more homeopathic, I guess, than the other. But yeah, you're right; Zicam does have a little bit of zinc oxide in it, and it may-- I guess it's possible it may be having some active ingredient, so it's not purely homeopathic. So anyway, those kind of products just muddy the waters 'cause people might take them thinking it's homeopathy when in fact it actually has a real ingredient in it and then they-- it has an effect and they think "oh, homeopathy works."

E: You know, it's interesting, because the people at Zicam are using "homeopathic" as a marketing tool, because that's appealing to a bunch of people who will buy something just because it says it's homeopathic; doesn't matter if it actually is or isn't.

S: That's exactly right. Yeah, "homeopathic" is now just a marketing tool, just like "natural".

E: Yeah, it's in vogue, unfortunately.

S: Yeah. Right. Although, I think the tide is turning against homeopathy, I really do.

E: That's good.

S: Well, let's move on to Science or Fiction.

Science or Fiction (59:02)[edit]


S: Each week I come up with three science news items or facts, two genuine and one fictitious. Then I challenge my panel of skeptics to tell me which one is the fake. We have a theme this week; the theme is "extinction and evolution", appropriately enough. And here we go. Item number one: Computer models suggest that the solar system moves through the plane of the galaxy every 35 million years, and that this is responsible for mass extinctions. Item number two: New information supports the hypothesis that world-wide forest fires were primarily responsible for the mass extinction (including the dinosaurs) at the end of the Cretaceous. And item number three: A recent genetic analysis shows that the duck-billed platypus shares some genetic features in common with birds rather than other mammals. Evan, go first.

E: The computer models suggesting the solar system moving through the plane of the galaxy every 35 million years responsible for mass extinctions. That's very interesting. It's probably true, I mean, it's just really so interesting that I think it should be true, and therefore it is. The second one was, the information supporting the hypothesis that world-wide forest fires were primarily responsible for the mass mass extinction at the end of the Cretaceous period. Uhhh, yeah. Mmmhmm, mmmhmm, mmmhmm. And the last one was the genetic analysis showing the duck-billed platypus sharing genetic features in common with birds rather than other mammals. Boy, I'm-- of the three of these I probably know absolutely nothing in regards to that last one about the duck-billed platypus. So I'm really sketchy; I mean I'm-- tempting to say that that one is fiction, but I'd be saying that pretty much out of total ignorance. But, you know what, I think ignorance is going to prevail tonight because I'm going to say that that one's fiction.

S: OK. Rebecca?

R: Using my theory, huh?

E: Yes.

R: Which one did you go with?

E: Duck-billed platypus. Fiction.

R: I dozed off. See, I think that that one's true. I mean--

E: See, I don't know enough about it.

R: Look at the thing. It's bird, it's mammal... it's probably got some lizard or bacteria in it or something.

E: Part of it's a tree, too.

R: Um. So I think that's true. World-wide forest fires; that's going to be tough, and it depends on what "world-wide" means. I mean, can't have a forest fire in Antarctica, right? But that's nit-picking. I have no idea. So, I too am hoping that ignorance wins the day; that one to me sounds the most suspicious. So I'll say world-wide forest fires not responsible for mass extinctions.

S: OK. Bob?

B: Hmmm. I could see forest-- I could make an argument in my mind for world-wide forest fires causing extinctions, maybe when the oxygen level was much higher than it is now I know, and one of the big risks with an atmosphere with a higher level of oxygen is forest fires. Lightning-- maybe lightning could've caused a more-- maybe a local meteor strike or something, so that seems plausible to me. The solar system moving through the plane of the galaxy every 35 million years responsible for mass extinctions. 35 million years seems a little too tight to me, but I have read some stuff-- I mean not recently but in the past, about how our solar system is oscillating up and down through the plane of the galaxy and how it could expose us to maybe more cosmic rays or other things that could-- or maybe even comets. The third one, the genetic analysis of the duck-billed platypus. I could see it maybe having common genes with birds but rather than other mammals? I mean, there's definitely some solid mammalian characteristics for the duck-billed platypus. So I'm not sure how it would not have any mammalian genes.

S: That's not what it says. Just to clarify.

B: Let me see... a recent genetic...

S: Doesn't say "doesn't have any mammalian"; it says it has some genetic features in common with birds rather than other mammals.

R: Yeah, it's weird wording.

B: Well, what does "rather than other mammals" mean?

S: In other words, there are some genetic features that are closer to birds than to mammals.

B: Crap. Well, now wait. Now you gotta give me a moment here.

E: It wouldn't have been a podcast if Bob hadn't said "crap" during Science or Fiction, by the way.

B: Yeah, there you go.

S: (chuckling)

B: Always something to "crap" about.

J: Bob, you need to do more of the George Costanza.

B: Yeah, what's that, Jay?

J: Remember when he decided that he's going to do the exact opposite of what his girlfriend tells him?

B: Yeah, that was great. (laughs) And everything goes swimmingly for him; I love that episode[9]. He tells a girl he meets, "yeah, I live with my mother and I don't have a job" and she just finds that so sexy.

S: (laughs)

B: All right, since I could see it having some features closer to birds, I'm going to say duck-billed platypus is fiction.

S: OK. Jay?

J: Yes. I'm just going to go with what Rebecca says, 'cause I think she made the most sense.

S: OK. So you all agree that "computer models suggest that the solar system moves through the plane of the galaxy every 35 million years, and that this is responsible for mass extinctions"--

J: That's science.

S: That is science.

E: Yay, science.

R: Yay.

S: And, Bob, you pretty much got the key details there. So this is a computer model looking at how the solar system moves through the galaxy and it finds that it "bounces" is what they're calling it, but it moves like up and down through the plane of the galaxy and what the computer model suggests is that when it moves through the plane, because there's a lot more stuff there, right, there's just more dense stars and gas clouds and whatnot, that the gravitational perturbations knock a lot of comets out of the-- out of their orbit, out of the Oort cloud. And the rate of impacts, of cometary impacts or the risk of a cometary impact goes up tenfold during the passage. So around every 35 to 40 million years we're at increased risk for a major impact, and that this actually syncs up quite nicely with some actual mass extinctions that have happened in the past.

B: And comets are nasty, because they come in hot.

S: Yeah. They're coming from far away and they're coming-- they're moving fast by the time they get in, yep.

B: Right, and all of a sudden, bam, there it is, and you've got-- we've got very little time to react.

S: So this is a team from the Cardiff Centre for Astrobiology. And again this is based on a computer model. Professor William Napier is involved in this research. So that was cool. Evan did you have something--

E: No, just that it would be an incredible thing to witness, you know, a sky full of either comets or other debris falling through-- it would just be visually amazing.

S: Yeah, if you could see it and not die, that would be cool. Let's go on to number two: New information supports the hypothesis that world-wide forest fires were primarily responsible for the mass extinction (including the dinosaurs) at the end of the Cretaceous. Now I actually--

J: Should we hold up hands now and get ready for this flap?

R: I think so, let's prepare.

S: I actually, in writing that one, I realized it after you guys started talking about it, that the assumption is that the world-wide forest fires were caused by the meteor impact, right, that happened 65 million years ago.

E: That was my thinking.

S: Yeah, right, that was the assumption in there; I probably should have spelled that out just to make sure it wasn't a misunderstanding. But, that one is fiction. That is the fiction.

R: High-five, Jay. Nice.

S: Because, one of the-- that was the standard model up to now, that the-- a meteor hit-- lots of nasty things, but among the nasty things that the meteor impact did was it threw up a lot of hot material, which then set the forests in the world on fire, and that that used up a lot of the vegetation, so there was not a lot of stuff to eat. It also threw up a lot of smoke, which clouded out the sun, which then made things even worse, and this all contributed to the mass extinction at the K-T boundary, the dinosaur extinction. One of the pieces of evidence for the world-wide forest fires was the discovery of these little carbon spherules in the-- at the K-T boundary. These are bits of carbon in a form that's usually only found as a result of industrial, like burning of coal, for example. And so that was a little baffling for a while, like "while is there this stuff 65 million years ago, you should only see this as the residue of a coal-burning factory or something". So they thought well maybe this was just the intensity of the fire burning the forests. But now a new model indicates that these carbon cenospheres-- which is what they're called-- could have formed because of carbon in the crust of the Earth-- when the meteor impacted, this carbon was thrown up into the atmosphere along with a lot of other stuff, and was thrown up into orbit, basically and then it turned into these-- it changed its structure; was able to form into these carbon cenospheres, these little spheres of carbon and then rained back down onto the Earth, which is why we find them in that layer of dirt at the K-T boundary. So if that happened as a result of carbon being thrown up from the crust, then that removes that as a piece of evidence for world-wide forest fires. So actually, this is evidence against the notion of world-wide forest fires happening as part of the extinction event. Which means, "a recent genetic analysis shows that the duck-billed platypus shares some genetic features in common with birds rather than other mammals" is science. And I apologize that the wording was a little iffy there; I tried to be as accurate as I could. I mean, I think the wording is accurate as I said it, but it's hard to know exactly what I was talking about, and again, I was trying not to give too much away. So here's the story: they just sequenced the platypus genome. And-- so there's several news reports out in the last few days about some of the initial discoveries made by looking at the platypus genome. Now the duck-billed platypus is a mammal; it's classified as a mammal but it is a--

B: It's a monotreme.

S: It's a monotreme; the duck-billed platypus branched off from the rest of the mammalian line very early on. So it's a very distant ancestor to all other mammals. So mammals basically come in three types: there's the placentals, you know, like us; the marsupials, and then the monotremes, like the duck-billed platypus, and there's a few other weird animals that fall into that group. But the animal looks really strange; it has what looks like a duck-like bill; it has fur but it lays eggs; it has venom like a snake in a spur on its hind leg. So, it was recognized as a very unusual animal from the time that it was first discovered.

B: And it detects electrical fields.

S: Is that right? That I did not read.

B: Yup.

S: So, now they're looking at the genetics and that's really interesting; what genetics is it going to have? It turns out that the platypus has a-- sexual chromosomes like birds and unlike mammals. So that's what I meant; It has some genetic features actually it shares with birds and not with mammals. When I first read that, I was like, "wow, that makes no sense"; you know, because they're more-- they branched off the line that led to mammals. But then I had to think about it for a while and then look at the clade, you know, like a cladogram, looking at just the sequence of branching between-- from reptiles to birds to mammals. And it can make sense, and this is how I can make sense out of it: if the common ancestor of mammals and birds, which goes back about 170 million years, had this scheme of chromosomes for determining sex that birds have, and that duck-billed platypus have, then that would explain why they're the same, right, so the common ancestor between birds and the platypus has to have that same genetic type. And then birds and the platypus kept it throughout their evolution. After the other mammals branched off from the platypus, we developed the typical XY, you know, sex chromosomes that we have, and after the birds separated from reptiles, the reptile-- surviving reptile branches also changed their chromosomes; they have a different-- yet a different sexual scheme. Those reptiles that became disosaurs and then birds kept the one that it shares in common-- with the common ancestor that they shared with the platypus. Does that make sense?

B: Yep.

S: So, you can make sense of that by how-- by the branching tree of relationships between reptiles, mammals and birds, but it first seems a little counter-intuitive that the platypus would share a genetic trait in common with birds but not mammals. But, there you have it. So, very, very interesting; they branched off really early from the line that led to mammals, so they're-- it's a very interesting evolutionary hold-over that teaches us a lot about how evolution unfolded in the vertebrate lines.

J: Steve, can I ask you a quick question?

S: Yeah.

J: Are you, uh, making all this up as you go along?

S: Pretty much, yeah, just off the top of my head.

E: He read it on the back of his cocktail napkins.

S: Was I that transparent? Was I being that transparent?

J: You have a fantastic memory, Steve.

S: Some of the times, Jay, I'm actually reading this off of, you know, websites and other material that I have in front of me. But I do that to make sure I'm getting the details right, but you know, I've read about this stuff for dec-- for years, so. I love evolution; it's one of my favorite disciplines in science. To me, it is so interesting to think about systems like this, like how things are related to each other. I find that really fascinating for some reason.

J: It's, you know, arguably one of the coolest discoveries of all time.

S: Evolution is.

E: It certainly goes hand-in-hand with science as a discipline; it's like the ultimate showcase of science, I think.

S: It is; it is an elegant and beautiful theory, you know, as theories go. It ties together so many observations, it has such predictive power, it is-- you know, as an explanatory paradigm, it really is an incredible innovation.

Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:14:31)[edit]

S: Well, Jay...

J: Yeah?

S: Do you have a quote for us this week? And I want to ask you-- so we had a request from a listener--

J: Yeah

S: --not to say who the quote is from until after you read the quote. What do you think about that?

J: The reason why, when took over doing the quotes, that I did that, was because I thought it was more interesting to know who the person is before the quote happens so you can kind of have that in your thinking when it's happening.

S: Yeah, I guess there's advantages and disadvantages either way; I hadn't really even thought about it or-- I didn't even notice you were doing it differently, to be honest with you.

J: Yeah, I give like the dates and--

S: 'Cause I see the quote up front anyway, so. But, I mean, it's interesting to think about; I don't know, what do you guys think about it, should we say who say the quote first or should we say the quote first?

J: Well, I mean, for this one listener I could do today-- I could not announce who it is.

S: Why don't we do--

R: Gee, I don't know; this is a very important issue. I think we're going to need another 10 minutes or so to discuss this.

J: (sings)

R: Let's call a meeting... all in favor.

E: Crap.

S: We'll say the quote first this week and then we'll put on the forum-- we'll put up a survey. And then we'll see what the results of the survey are.

R: Yes, democracy is the way to solve this issue.

E: But what about the superdelegates, they get to decide too, right?

R: Oh, this is a complex-- this is just the primary voting that's going to go up on the forum.

E: Oh, good, good. This'll last for years.

R: This could go on for another nine months easily.

S: So are we the superdelegates; is that how that would work?

E: I guess so, yeah.

R: We're just super.

S: And the listeners are the regular delegates?

E: The polls say 90% do it one way, and we'll say, "mraah, we say the other way". That's that.


R: That's how we do everything.

S: All right, Jay, hit us with the quote.

J: (stuffy British accent)

It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.

J: Sherlock Holmes!

S: (chuckling) Sherlock Holmes. That is a very Holmesian statement.

E: Yes.

R: And that accent, Jay, it was nearly as good as Dick van Dyke's chimney sweep.

B: Hah! Ohh!

R: Nearly that good.


S: You know, almost as good.

J: Rebecca, doesn't it blow your mind that that movie pretty much made up that whole English genre situation, that that doesn't really exist?

R: (laughing) "The English..." Yes, that does blow my mind, whatever you just said.

E: Is that like the whole pirate...

S: That's whatever you were talking about for you!

R: You blew my mind.

J: No, you know--

E: All right, so Sherlock Holmes, obviously a fictional character, so it was written by--

J: Yeah, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, true believer; everybody knows his deal.

E: Right. Here's-- right.

S: Know what's interesting about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes? That Doyle didn't like the Holmes character; that Holmes was actually a caricature of a hyper-rationalist jerk that Doyle didn't like, and ironically, he becomes this iconic figure of reason and rationality. Isn't that great?

J: It is great. And he had to write him; that was his thing.

B: Doyle deserved it.

S: He did. Cottingly Fairies.

E: Doyle was tricked by the Cottingley Fairies. How is that possible?

S: By two little girls.

E: Two little girls with cardboard cutout figures.

J: I always kind of thought that it was his alter ego in a way too, because he really seems to understand logic when you hear quotes like that.

S: Yeah. He does; it's interesting. But he was like, making-- almost like making fun of the hyper-rationalists, you know? But--

E: Then how-- but why would that be his protagonist instead of like his antagonist in his book? It's a very interesting--

J: Because it sold books. It sold books.

S: I don't know.

E: Well. Not the first one. You know, he probably didn't know. I find it fascinating, the whole Doyle, you know, paradox, basically.

S: Well, thank you again everyone for being with me. Always a pleasure.

R: Thank you, Steve. Good times.

E: It's been a great three years.

S: It has been a great three years.

E: Been great.

R: Here's to three more.

S: And looking forward to doing many more.

B: Very nice.

J: I'm lucky to be in this room with all you guys.

S: In this metaphorical virtual room?

J: Yes.

E: I love it.

S: Well, I'm lucky to have all you guys with me.

E: It's a good team.

J: We could actually go to Second Life and hang out while we do this, you know.

S: We could. We could hang out in virtual land.

R: Yeah, then we'd be incredibly lame. Having been to Second Life, it's all furries having sex.


J: Oh my God, is that what it's degenerated into?

S: The furries have taken over Second Life?

R: Slowly and... kind of jerky, but yeah.

E: Well, that's evolution for you.

B: There's some cool stuff going on there.

S: Clearly, we have to take over Second Life; skeptics need to take over Second Life. That's the--

R: Can't we just-- Let's take over the first life first, you know?

E: We're working on it!

S: That's true. There is that.

R: 'Cause I'm kind of consumed with the whole first life right now.

J: Anyway.

S: Well, that's our-- that's three years is a wrap. And until next week, this is your Skeptics' Guide to the Universe.

S: The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe is produced by the New England Skeptical Society in association with the James Randi Educational Foundation and For more information on this and other episodes, please visit our website at For questions, suggestions, and other feedback, please use the "Contact Us" form on the website, or send an email to If you enjoyed this episode, then please help us spread the word by voting for us on Digg, or leaving us a review on iTunes. You can find links to these sites and others through our homepage. 'Theorem' is produced by Kineto, and is used with permission.


  1. More History on the SGU at The Rogues Gallery
  2. SGU_Episode_33, temporary link
  3. Land O'Lakes Cooperative in Minnesota
  4. The Skeptics' Guide 5x5 #17
  5. An Evolution Primer for Young Earth Creationists at Skeptoid
  6. In Memoriam A.H.H. by Alfred, Lord Tennyson
  7. Seems to be taken from 15 Answers to Creationist Nonsense at Scientific American, available here
  8. Ten Major Flaws of Evolution—A Refutation at Neurologica
  9. "The Opposite" episode of "Seinfeld"
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